Friday, 25 September 2015

Why the rules for success don't work for authors

As promised, the unicorn has graced us with a reply to those rules for success I posted earlier this month. This is what my beautiful and spiritual muse has to say about writing fiction...

1. There are no rules.
If you look at the career paths of the authors in the top ten lists, you'll see many different paths all leading to the same place. Following a set rules is not too hard (unless you're a unicorn, anyway), and the thousands of authors who never appear in the top ten lists didn't one day suddenly decide to break every single writing rule and ruin their careers. The truth is there is no best-selling career formula, just as there is no best-selling book formula. So stop worrying!

2. Whose success are we talking about, anyway?
Those top ten lists are almost always about book sales: higher sales figures equals more successful. The unicorn understands that this is the way the human world works, and the only real measure of a book's success in the marketplace is how many copies it sells. But what we're really talking about here is the bookseller's success, and (to a lesser extent) the publisher's success. Higher sales should mean more profits for the bookseller, publisher and their shareholders - though not necessarily for the author. Watch those contracts!

3. Luck
This is about the only writing rule that makes any sense to a unicorn. We call it magic. You could try praying to the deity of your choice, or casting the runes, or writing only in purple ink on Wednesdays when it's raining, or (if you must) obeying a random set of rules some blogger tells you is the only way to be successful because that's the way they did it. All of these things will have an equal effect on your author career... i.e. none at all (unless you're lucky).

4. Ambition... but for what?
We've mentioned ambition, ego, drive, determination and other such admirable traits that will eventually get you to the top in any other career. The assumption here is that all authors want to be popular and appear in the top ten lists. Maybe some (many?) do, but aside from the fact you probably won't have to worry about paying the bills if you have a big hit, being very popular can actually hold back a creative career because you can be sure publishers will want "more of the same, only different" and be very reluctant to let you try anything else. Even if you are not a household name, you might be afraid to try something else in case it ruins your career.

Aside from sales figures, there are as many ways for an author to measure success as there are individual authors. Writing the perfect story, hearing from a reader saying your book has changed their life. continuing to write over a long career even if you never make a top ten list or win a prize, paying the bills, making a living, publishing a book you've spent your entire life writing... whatever your current ambition, it is an equally valid creative ambition as to be a number one best-selling author. Ask yourself why you really write books.

5. The numbers don't add up!
Even if your measure of success is purely financial, impressive sales do not automatically mean impressive royalties. For example, my royalty on a high-volume book club sale made via. a publisher has been as little as 2p per copy. You need to sell an awful lot of books at 2p royalty to pay a mortgage... at the other extreme, the 70% royalty from an indie-published ebook selling at the same price as a discounted book can bring in £2 or more for the author. Do the math: 100 sales at a 2p royalty brings in just £2 for the author, whereas a single sale at a £2 royalty will do the same, making it just as good financially for the author to sell a modest 100 copies of an ebook, as it is to sell 10,000 high discount copies of a print book via. a publisher (£200 profit in each case). Neither of these will pay the average mortgage either, but it shows how misleading sales figures are as a measure of a book's success. The unicorn wonders why, after the collapse of the Net Book Agreement, publishers don't treat books like movies and calculate the gross? Then those top ten lists might make more sense for everyone.

So the unicorn's advice is to stop worrying about other people's rules and concentrate on the writing. If you must have rules, make your own. If all else fails, find yourself a unicorn. Then you can always escape in the enchanted mists when things get crazy out there...


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